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The 25 Best Transformative Book-to-Movie Adaptations

11 April 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Woodson Hughes

best book to movie adaptations

Question one: What do the films, Citizen Kane, Notorious, Chinatown, and Nashville have in common? Answer: They are all great films by great directors which all began as original scripts.

Question two: What do the films, The Magnificent Ambersons, Rear Window, Rosemary’s Baby and M*A*S*H all have in common? Answer: They are all great films by the same great directors and they were all adapted from material which originally appeared in another form . Question three: Which group of films is the greater? Answer: There is no answer..

Many film scholars and viewers adhere to the auteur theory advanced in the 1950s by the French film periodical Cahiers du Cinema which proclaimed that the director was the principal guiding force, the author as is were, of a film.

Whatever one may think of that theory (and those who worship critic Pauline Kael will have a much different response than those loyal to fellow critic Andrew Sarris) there is no question about the need for someone strong and decisive to be at the helm of any enterprise that channels the efforts of a large group of people, which a film production most certainly does.

A great director puts his imprint on a film so that the look, the feel, the thematic preoccupations, and the overriding quality of the individual project could only have come from him (or her) alone.

It’s easy enough to see this happening with an original script, especially since in the director is often one of the writers. However, does this mean that a script adapted from someone else’s work, one with a style and vision different from the director’s, would, by definition, yield a lesser work? No, this does follow at all.

Adaptation is tricky to be sure. Many readers often complain that a film version “isn’t as good as the book.” What they miss is that the film isn’t a book. It is a new entity derived from a previous source and the director may find that source close enough to his own vision to retain as much of the material as possible or, as is often the case, the director may use the basic ideas and/or characters to create his own version of the story. That vision and how well it does or doesn’t work is what, ultimately, is the standard by which the film should be judged.

As a caveat, it must be noted that many film makers find it far easier to take ideas from more obscure or lesser works in creating their own, if only to avoid competition with a famous or praised source. That stated, what follows is a list of films taken from literary sources which great directors transformed into great, or, at least, notable, films.

 

25. The English Patient (1996)

The English Patient

Author Michael Ondaatjee’s novel, The English Patient, is a great literary achievement and director/screenwriter Anthony Minghella’s film version is a great cinematic achievement. Rarely do two such related projects work out so equally but, then again, it’s rare that two such fine artists work on the same material.

The setting is a bombed-out Italian monastery during World War II where a horribly burned man, victim of a fiery airplane crash caused by enemy fire, is being attended in his last days by a selfless young nurse who is coping with her own inner wounds.

As it turn out, the man is not English at all, as those around him suppose since he feigns amnesia, but is, in fact, a Hungarian noble and the story of how he came to be in the plane is far from heroic. Flashbacks to that story, which involves an intense affair with a married woman, are intertwined with the story of the nurse and two other characters.

The novel’s fragmented time line structure was complex and Minghella decided to streamline it to the story of the burn victim, Count Almasy (Ralph Finnes ), the woman he tragically loved (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and the noble nurse, Hanna (Juliette Binoche).

Though some parts of the story and some characters (such as the ones played by Willem Dafoe and Art Malik) had to be lessened, the film version aptly conveys the novel’s themes of loss, tragedy, accountability, honor and sacrifice. Minghella’s visual style is lush and seductive and lovely, his structuring of the screenplay expert and his handling of the actors is beyond reproach.

It is sad that while Michael Ondaatjee is still alive and well and writing fine books, fate sadly ended Minghella’s life all too soon. However, he did create this imposing monument.

 

24. M*A*S*H (1970)

MASH

Robert Altman had been in the movie business a very long time, going from industrial films to TV to feature films when a golden opportunity came his way.

20th Century Fox, never a studio to back down from making a war film, even in the Vietnam era, was putting a lot of money into the gung ho military bio-pic Patton but also, at the same time, greenlit a smaller picture that was adapted from an amusing comic novel about the Korean War written by former U.S. Army surgeon Richard Hooker (actually Dr. Richard Hornberger).

The book was M*A*S*H* (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) and the film turned out to be a huge hit and put one of the most individualistic of all U.S directors on the map.

M*A*S*H concerns a group of medical personnel mostly trying to keep their individual and collective sanity while serving in a primitive mobile hospital in a forbidding section of the Korean wilderness. The two main characters are irreverent doctor Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliott Gould).

They not only have to battle it out with rigid military types, such as certifiable Major Burns (Robert Duvall) and his cohort Major Houlahan (Sally Kellerman), AKA “Hot Lips”, but also with a basic situation that might send them over the edge. This could have been just another forgettable “service comedy” but Altman put a spin on it for the ages.

First, he didn’t much believe in star turns so his films tend to be ensemble affairs so they always look like a perpetual party is going on. Altman also was adevout believer in soundtrack experimentation and always had soundtracks which were cacophonies of overlapping dialog and ambient sounds which help to give the films alifelike quality, especially when married to the hand held camera work the director preferred.

Add to this the improvisation the director encouraged and an Altman film is often like a slice of life, only more interesting due to the director’s irreverent take on almost everything. A war-weary public ate all of this up as they sensed that Altman cared for the war as little as they did.

His combinationof gritty truths (the film is quite bloody), satire, and out and out comedy was a tonic for the times (no one thought this film was really about Korea). Many, including the director, thought that his later films were better but M*A*S*H was a revelation and made Altman a gift to the cinematic world.

 

23. The Tin Drum (1979)

tin drum

One of post-World War II Germany’s greatest authors was Nobel Prize-winner Gunther Grass and one of his greatest works is the political allegory, The Tin Drum. One of the New German Cinema’s greatest film directors is Volker Schlondroff and perhaps his supreme achievement is his cinematic version of this book.

The story concerns a young boy named Oskar who, in the days leading up to the Nazi regime’s take over, decides that the adult world (especially the sexual part) is disgusting and that he will not join it. So, at the age of three he begins to frantically beat on his toy tin drum and emit soul shattering screams whenever he feels any growing pains.

This freakish occurrence leads to many strange consequences including making the young man a person of interest to the upcoming rulers of his country. This is an unusual tale rendered in in bold words by Grass and in equally bold images by Schlondroff. Only a brave and assured film maker would have chosen to film this book and only a great one could have lived up to it and made so enduring a film.

One breathtaking item was the casting of David Bennett, a non-professional, as Oskar for Bennett actually had a medical condition which inhibited his growth and, thus, he was much like the unique character he portrayed. That the director guided him to a fine performance is another feather in Schlondroff’s cap.

Thanks to Schlondroff’s gift for great visuals, courage in exploring dark themes, and skillful handling of actors and the camera, The Tin Drum is a one of the great films of the modern era.

 

22. Kiss Me, Deadly (1954)

Kiss Me, Deadly (1955)

Mystery author Mickey Spillane was definitely a mid-20th century phenomenon due to his graphically violent and sexual crime novels, P.I Mike Hammer, a crypto-fascist who decides who is guilty and what punishment should be meted out to those who cross his path.

Though the censor might not have wanted it, Hollywood snapped up the author’s books with a production company called Parklane Pictures winning the rights to several of them. Such films as The Long Wait and My Gun is Quick gave the public what they expected (and what the books deserved) but one of these productions gave all concerned way more than bargained for: this was Kiss Me, Deadly.

Director Robert Aldrich was an expert maker of vibrant, violent genre films that weren’t noted for being subtle or refined. The jaw-dropper about Aldrich is that he, in fact, was a carefully raised, well educated member of the Rockefeller family and quite liberal in his sympathies. He found the Spillane novels appalling on many levels and made a film that was awash in violence but also was a protest against the spirit of the book .

In this version of the story, much changed from the original, Hammer ( Ralph Meeker, who usually played villains) is flagged down by a frantic woman (a young Cloris Leachman) who is running from some ultra dangerous men who want a secret she is carrying in her head. Hammer and the woman don’t get far before they are captured and the woman is tortured to death without revealing her secret.

Hammer is set up to die in a rigged auto accident from which he manages to escape. It seems that the woman’s secret involves a mysterious metal box that emits a burning light if opened even slightly.

Hammer is warned off by authorities but senses that something way out of the ordinary is contained in the box as he vies with a number of colorful characters to control whatever the something may be. However, when the box ends up in the wrong hands and when it is finally opened everyone is left speechless-literally.

Aldrich stages the film is a fast, flashy, frantic way with incisive noir photography. He also uses off kilter angles and framing to show that, in the end, all of Hammer’s tearing around means nothing and that the world has gone out of sync and all the private eye “heroes” in the world can’t measure up to the terrors the modern world contains. (This even extends to the credits, which flow across the screen backwards!)

Though Spillane understood that Aldrich undermined him and hated it the film now looks like a very modern and stylish item and was a major influence on the French New Wave.

 

21. A Passage to India (1984)

A Passage To India (1984)

After a fourteen-year hiatus caused by the bad reviews and box office that met 1970’s Ryan’s Daughter, the magnificent director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai) came back to the cinematic world with this adaptation of E.M. Forester’s great novel.

A Passage to India is set in the later days of the British Raj as India was starting to question just why it had to exist under the control of a foreign nation. The story concerns a sheltered woman who has come to the country in order to make a proper marriage. Her interaction with a widowed native Indian physician leads to a volatile situation involving an ambiguous situation which occurred during a picnic at a local landmark.

Forester’s India was a mishmash of confused motives, goals, directions and intentions as two cultures collided. Well, Lean was always the most orderly, perfectly composed and scenically beautiful of directors . As usual, each shot of a Lean film is like a work of art unto itself. However, he did manage to convey that his beautiful India was in a state of turmoil which only major change could alleviate. He had also lost none of his intuition for casting.

Yes, he chose such stalwarts as Alec Guiness, Edward Fox, Nigel Havers and Oscar-winning Dame Peggy Ashcroft but he also cast excellent Indian actors such as Victor Banerjee, Art Malik and Saeed Jaffrey and catapulted the superb Australian actress Judy Davis to a major career.

Though the film may have seemed a bit too stately and reserved for some, its civilized qualities were most welcome at a moment when they were in short supply and this film provided a most fitting farewell to one of the great film makers.

 

20. Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter From an Unknown Woman

Like Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls was a great film director who had to flee Vienna when the Nazis moved in. Unlike Wilder, he already had a great reputation when he arrived in Hollywood. Also unlike Wilder, he never quite cracked the Hollywood nut, though three of the four films he made there look quite good today and one, the film under consideration, stands with his best European films.

Taken from a naturalistic short novel by Stefan Zwieg , the story is set in 19th century Austria. It opens as a notoriously womanizing concert pianist (Louis Jordan) is about to flee a duel of honor ) when a letter from a woman he can’t recall is delivered to him.

It seems the woman was dying as she wrote it and the letter tells the sad tale of how she threw her life away twice over due to her love for him, though she was nothing more than another nameless, faceless conquest to him.

The woman was played by Joan Fontaine and though she might not have been as great an actress as the ones Ophuls had used in Europe, nobody could top her when she played her specialty: beautiful, grossly wronged masochists, and this, her finest performance, was that magnum opus.

Additionally, Hollywood was able to allow the director to recreate his beloved period Austria perfectly and aided him in the facilitation of his famed elegantly long tracking shots.

One of the really notable things about Ophuls’ work is the fact that woman were consistently the protagonist of his films. Inmost of the films the women make wrong, if not outright disastrous, decisions. In the end, however, the women are the ones to make those choices and the director does not condemn them for this.

Also, Ophuls had the unique talent of making his films lush and romantic while at the same time never really softening the harder truths he might be expressing. As in this film, the women may, in the end, be at fault for the messes that befall them but Ophuls would have it known that a woman can be entitled to mistakes just as would be a man.

 

 

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  • Bianca.

    Great article, but Peter Jackson’s from New Zealand, just to let you know. 🙂

    • Brian Lussier

      And he said that.

      • Bianca.

        It was Australian when I read it. 🙂

        • Brian Lussier

          Oh, okay. He must have changed it before I read it, perhaps after reading your comment.

  • gustavomda

    I’d recommend Macunaíma, by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade. It was based on modernist author Mário de Andrade’s (no relation) masterpiece, but Joaquim set the story in the 60s, when Brazil was under a military dictatorship. Not only that, the movie is a homage to Brazilian modernism and also to chanchadas, the most popular Brazilian film genre during the 40s and 50s. It even stars Grande Otelo, one of the most renowned chanchada actors, who was deemed by Orson Welles himself as the greatest Brazilian actor of his time.

  • Gordon Knox

    Not
    sure if it’s just been confusingly written, but the Apocalypse Now
    section seems to be confusing the plot of the film with the plot of
    Conrad’s novel. Heart of Darkness is not set during a war but in
    colonial Africa, and the main character – who is named Marlow not
    Willard and is a sailor not an officer – is sent there by a trading
    company to track down an ivory trader named Kurtz who has gone native
    and set himself up as a god amongst the African tribesmen.
    I created this illustrated guide to Heart of Darkness a while back if anyone’s interested in the novel and its background:

    http://www.bookdrum.com/…/hear…/9780140186529/index.html

    • Klaus Dannick

      Yes, the author of the article is describing the plot of the film when it seems that they’re going to describe the novel. Anyone who wasn’t familiar with the novel would think that he was summarizing the book, given the way it’s worded.

  • Brian Lussier

    Finally, someone on Taste of Cinema gets that The Lord Of The Rings is great cinema! I still don’t get the resentment it gets from so many here. Anyway, this is a good list, though I would take out The English Patient. But that’s personal, I just didn’t like it. As for Kubrick’s 2001, I’m not sure it should be here. It wasn’t adapted from a novel in the normal sense, since the film was completed before the novel was finished.

    • Ron Miller

      That is true, but as Hughes points out, the film was inspired by a pre-existing short story. Elements from several other Clarke stories were also eventually incorporated.

  • Dan Comfort

    Anthony Burgess’ wife was neither raped or murdered during the attack; four American deserters robbed and viciously beat her, so badly she miscarried her baby and had health issues the rest of her life.

  • Matthew Benbenek

    Under the Volcano by John Huston was one of the most impressive transformations from book to movie. The Coen’s No Country For Old Men should also have been on this list.

  • Hiram Manrah

    no fight club ?

  • Randy Hunnicutt

    No To Kill a Mockingbird? Great book made into a great movie. Gregory Peck was perfect as Addicus. One of the few books I’ve read after seeing the movie and still loved the movie when I was done.

  • Bryton Cherrier

    Jurassic Park is a fitting film to be on this list as well.

  • Remnant Psyche

    I feel The French Lieutenant’s Woman deserves consideration for any list like this one. The film adapts an un-adaptable novel by completely doing its own thing. In doing so, it approximates the tone and theme of the novel extremely well.

  • Adam

    What about JAWS? Hello??

  • Odd, I found Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu” hugely disappointing. I’d add Thomas Harris’ “Hannibal” here, but you’re probably too cool for that 😛

  • Richard McLin

    How is “The Green Mile” not on here?

  • Jean-Baptiste

    I recently read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and I found the film version much better.

  • Klaus Dannick

    At the risk of this lis becoming too Kubrick-heavy, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

  • siobhanjack

    Silence of the Lambs, Let the Right One In, Stalker, Blade Runner.

  • Fémina Esdrújula

    y Como agua para chocolate??? Dònde???!

  • Davide

    LOTR : The Fellowship of The Ring : Tom Bombadill not found !
    Not even the part where gollum takes the four hobbits into a cave and Tom saves them!
    OR when Tom saves them from a tree ( cant remember the name of the tree )!

  • There is no greater example than Jaws. Not only is the film better than the book, it is an example of a film that turns what is a poorly written novel into an all time classic cinematic event. Jaws is the clear number one despite this website’s Kubrick boner.

  • Rym Mokhtari

    No Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf ?
    No Bladerunner ?

  • Slaughterhouse Five.

  • Noah Garner

    picnic at hanging rock!